Remembering the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival

On September 4, the curtain will rise on the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival. Now in its 32nd year, TIFF is a can't miss for Hollywood's biggest names. As excitement around the event builds, Straight contributor and editor of the film industry magazine Reel West Ian Caddell dug up the diary he kept while at last year's festival. The following is an unedited draft of an article that originally appeared in the November 20007 edition of Reel West Magazine.

Thursday, September 6 – Somewhere over the Prairies on the way to Toronto Toronto’s film festival was founded in 1976 and given the name Festival of Festivals. When it had grown to become one of the world’s leading festivals the title seemed to be somewhat immodest. However, the choice of names was very Canadian. The organizers assumed that they wouldn’t be able to get many premieres and that most films would have already been seen at other festivals. (In 1994 it became the Toronto International Film Festival.) American studios were invited to the 1976 festival but stayed home because they didn’t support festivals that promoted films within its “domestic” market, which included Canada.

The following year, according to the Globe and Mail, the biggest star was Happy Days’ Henry Winkler. Times have changed. Visitors to Toronto during this year’s festival will inevitably read or hear the term “star-studded” hundreds of times. Journalists have been invited to attend press conferences given by Brad Pitt, George Clooney and dozens of other studly stars. As a result, it is easy to forget that the festival has a parallel universe, one that includes films whose stars are household names in countries most North Americans could probably not find on a map. That universe also includes Canadian films whose directors and stars are as obscure to most Canadians as those of the international films.

I will be spending most of the next six days in that universe. I have already confirmed interviews with Cristian Mungiu, the Romanian director whose film 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes film festival; Czech director Jan Sverák who won the foreign language film Oscar for Kolya several years ago and is in Toronto with the comedy Empties and Austrian filmmaker Stefan Ruzowitzky whose film The Counterfeiters is the story of a group of Jewish prisoners who survive Nazi prison camps by printing phony money. The Canadians on my list include Guy Maddin, Bruce MacDonald and Clement Virgo. I will be seeing a lot of films, but have a head start having already seen two films, McDonald’s The Tracey Fragments and a Quebec film called Summit Circle. I am aware, after six years of coming here, that there will be good days, bad days and days when I will forget who I am talking to.

5PM Arrive in Toronto and go straight to my hotel, a Howard Johnsons on Avenue Road, just behind the Four Seasons. . I discover that they rid themselves of Internet modems two days earlier and now have only wireless connections. That means I will have to walk almost a mile to the Sutton Place media office just to check emails. It’s not a good start.

6PM Go to the Intercontinental Hotel and pick up copies of three films from their Canadian publicists: 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, Shake Hands with the Devil and Poor Boy’s Game.

7PM I start watching 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, which tells the story of a young woman who discovers that her best friend is pregnant. In Communist-era Romania, where abortion is illegal, she sets out to find a doctor willing to perform an illegal act.

8:30PM Throw Shake Hands with the Devil into the computer. It’s a dramatic version of Canadian general Roméo Dallaire’s book about his experiences in Rwanda. It stars Roy Dupuis as Dallaire and is difficult to watch, not because of the violence that has been the hallmark of the other films about Rwanda but because the smart and compassionate Dallaire embodies all the characteristics that people from outside the country supposedly like about Canadians and yet it works against him.

10:00PM Finish off the day with the Nova Scotia-produced comedy Just Buried, the story of a young man who inherits a funeral parlour and then sets out to drum up business. It’s a little dark but has its funny moments. It’s always nice to see a comedy from outside Toronto given a chance to be seen here in the centre of these parallel universes.

Friday, September 7, 8:30AM I take the subway to the Paramount screening room to see Into the Wild, Sean Penn’s true story about a young American who leaves home for the wilds of Alaska. It’s powerful but a little long for my tight schedule. I end up being late for the 11PM screening of The Counterfeiters. I come in about a third of the way through but see enough to feel comfortable about interviewing director Ruzowitzky and the film’s star, Karl Markovics.

1:30PM Watch Poor Boy’s Game back at the hotel. I have never liked Clement Virgo’s work but this time out he has done something unique in that he has told a Canadian story most of us are not familiar with: the struggle between Halifax’s working class whites and a black population that has been in Nova Scotia since the American Civil War.

4:05PM Cristian Mongiu tells me that the nouveau capitalists in Rumania have discovered that the huge movie theatres make great condos. He tells me there are 35 theatres left to serve the 20 million Rumanians. On my way to the Paramount screening room from the Intercontinental Hotel I realize two things. I have probably passed at least 25 movie theatres and that despite these theatrical riches Canada has yet to win a Palme d’Or.

4:30PM Head back to the Paramount screening room to see Margot at the Wedding in which Nicole Kidman goes head to head with Jennifer Jason Leigh in a story about sisters with secrets. It’s from Squid and the Whale director Noah Baumbach who likes to make movies about dysfunctional families. I am thrilled that I can’t relate to any of the characters and wonder if the independent film really needs movie star Kidman.

7PM Finally watch a truly funny film, Jan Sverák’s Empties, which stars his father, Zdenek Sverák, as an elderly man who refuses to retire.

9PM – Go back to the hotel to see Frank Langella revive his career in Starting Out in the Evening, which tells the story of a writer whose early works are rediscovered by an admiring student.

Saturday, September 8, 9AM I head off to see Breakfast with Scott, an unfunny Canadian comedy about a gay hockey player. Wonder if the film would have been selected by the Toronto festival if it had been about a former Vancouver Canuck rather than a former Toronto Maple Leaf.

11:15AM Rush over to the Intercontinental Hotel for The Counterfeiters’ interview. We talk about the men on whom the true story was based, two now-elderly Jewish men who argue about ideology in the film and, according to the director, are still arguing about it more than 60 years later. They have survived the camps, their hatred of the Nazis and the death of so many friends but they have the good sense to still dislike one another. It reminds us that eccentric characters can survive almost anything.

12:15PM My second Canadian revelation comes with the watching of My Winnipeg, Guy Maddin’s documentary about his hometown. In 1988, I wrote a scathing review of Maddin’s first film, Tales From the Gimli Hospital for Variety. I assumed it would ruin his career and was somewhat disappointed that he went on to become one of Canada’s most respected filmmakers. I have never liked any of his films but fall in love with My Winnipeg, which is one of the most watchable movies I have seen in a while.

2:15PM Walk down the hall of the Varsity Theatre to the screening of the pleasant but uninspiring Jane Austen Book Club.

4:20PM Interview Guy Maddin, who talks about his hometown of Winnipeg in much the same way that it comes across in the film, My Winnipeg: like an addiction. He says he might be moving to Toronto to be closer to his daughter, but you get the feeling he'll be mainlining the place for a while yet.

5:30PM Go back to the hotel and watch Weirdsville, the story of drug addicts in a small city in Ontario. Wonder if it would have been selected for the festival if it had been about a small city in Alberta.

7:00PM I follow it up with This Beautiful City, the story of a luxury apartment in a downtown core where the tenants are only a few feet away from the seamier side of life. It’s Toronto of course, but it’s obviously a universal theme. Would it have been accepted at the Toronto festival had it been about Vancouver? Not if it was the same quality, but perhaps a western Canadian filmmaker would have made a better movie.

Sunday, September 9, 8:30AM Head to the Varsity Theatre to see Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth: The Golden Age for interviews I will be doing in Los Angeles on Friday.

12:30AM Talk to Jan Sverak about his profile in the Czech Republic after his 1997 Oscar win for Kolya. He tells me that it took him a long time to make a movie because he felt that there were a lot of people who wanted him to fail after his success. It sounds very Canadian.

1PM Go into an interview at the Hyatt with William Hurt, who co-stars in Into the Wild. I have talked to him at press junkets in groups but never one-on-one. I remember him as being obsessed with politics and rather boring, but it’s different this time. Since the movie is about a family whose son decides to disappear, we talk about kids. It’s emotional, as can be expected when a dad of four (Hurt) talks to a dad of five (me) about a movie about father-son relationships. Find it hard to leave, but need to be back at the Intercontinental for 1:35.

1:35PM Arrive in time for my interview with Breakfast with Scot star Tom Cavanagh. The Canadian, who starred in the series Ed, impresses me with his knowledge of hockey. I am also happy to hear that he had a tough time, as a life-long Montreal Canadiens fan, with wearing a Leaf uniform in the film. There are few things more Canadian than bashing Toronto. Doing it in Toronto is even more fun.

2PM Run back to the Hyatt for roundtable interviews for The Jane Austen Book Club. A highlight is talking to the film’s writer/director Robin Swicord. She tells us that she managed to convince the distributor (Sony Classics) that it would work better for the film if there were no movie stars in the nine member ensemble. Note that the people behind Margot at the Wedding should have taken the same approach.

3:45PM Jog to the Intercontinental to talk to Langella, who has been pretty busy for a guy who turns 70 in January. He won a Tony Award for playing Richard Nixon in Nixon/Frost on Broadway and then started working on the film version. He says that he was allowed to play Nixon on Broadway without the aid of make-up but couldn’t get away with it for the film version. “A little tweaking,” was all he would allow, he says.

5PM Head off to see Across the Universe, which will be the first of the festival films to open since it is scheduled to hit Vancouver on the following Thursday. It’s Hair with Beatle songs, but it works for me. My original plan was to leave early to get to a reception at the Drake Hotel at the other end of town but get caught up in the nostalgia and stay till the end.

7:30PM Jump in a cab and make it for the last half hour of a party hosted by the Whistler Film Festival, Brightlight Pictures and the First Weekend Club. The locals have pretty much left but the BC crowd is hanging in. I ask Debbie Walker of Translucent Films to gather as many westerners together as she can find for photos. It feels like home, but is too short. Some of us head out to another party, this one thrown by local distributor Seville. It’s okay but it definitely doesn’t feel like home. Head back to the hotel around midnight very aware that tomorrow is the busiest day of the festival for me.

Mon Sept 10, 8:30 am – Off to see two-time Genie winner Francois Girard’s first film in almost a decade, Silk. It is a huge film with as many international partners as there are locations. Based on the best-seller of the same name, it stars Michael Pitt as a Frenchman who journeys to Japan in the 1800s to find silkworms for the local plant.

11:15AM – It’s another long film and I barely get back to the Intercontinental in time to meet up with Romeo Dallaire and, 20 minutes later, the actor who plays him in Shake Hands with the Devil, Roy Dupuis. Dallaire is soft spoken but does not back down from the tough questions, willing to discuss his demons. He says he wanted the movie made because he doesn’t think there can ever be enough films about the killing fields of Rwanda. He admits that he wasn’t happy, however, with parts of the most famous film about the genocide. He says that the producers of Hotel Rwanda were surprised that he would think anyone would assume that the crazed UN colonel played by Nick Nolte was based on him. However, he turned out to be correct when the review in Montreal’s La Presse said “Dallaire is not particularly effective.”

Noon -– Since I am interviewing Evan Rachel Wood at 2:35 and have promised the Georgia Straight that I can get the story in by Tuesday morning for this week’s paper I need to run back to my room in order to get my Sony headphones. I plan to do the interview and then transcribe it in the busy media centre, send it to myself and then write it early tomorrow back at the media centre, using the time zones to help me meet the deadline. When I get back to the room there is a note from the maid apologizing for vacuuming up the headphone wires. Leave a message for my colleague Mark Leiren-Young asking if he has headphones, and rush off to the next interview.

1:00PM - Interview Chaz Thorne, a Halifax filmmaker who wrote Poor Boy’s Game and directed the wacky comedy Just Buried. Both films are from Nova Scotia but that is all they have in common. Make a note that he is someone to watch.

2:35PM – Evan Rachel Wood is waiting for me at the Four Seasons. She seems fragile but that could be because she is doing interviews for three films that she is starring in here at the festival. The list includes the film we are talking about, Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe, In Bloom and a film I will be seeing tonight, King of California.

3:15PM Time to interview This Beautiful City’s director Ed Gass-Donnelly. I am concerned that I will blurt out that I don’t like his film, but I am polite. He talks about the plotlines and the idea that luck is the only thing that separates the characters on the street and the characters in the posh apartment. I am clear on the concept but still not a fan of the film.

3:45PM Head to the media centre and find Mark’s headphones in my slot. Love ya, Mark. Transcribe the Evan Rachel Wood tape and send it to myself for tomorrow morning.

5PM Get back to the Four Seasons for a Maple Pictures party. I haven’t eaten yet today and need to grab all the food I can get my hands on. I am told by Vancouver producer Kirk Shaw that his Battle in Seattle had a standing ovation the night before. I’m happy for Kirk who has to be one of the nicest people in show business.

7PM Take the subway to a screening at Yonge and Eglinton for King of California. I realize while watching it that it would have been better to talk to Evan Rachel Wood after seeing it. While Across the Universe was an ensemble piece, this film is almost a “two-hander” with her and Michael Douglas playing a dysfunctional father and daughter team out to dig up buried treasure in a department store.

Tuesday, September 11, 9AM I planned my day around the writing of the story on Evan Rachel Wood. I have an hour to get to the media centre at the Sutton, write 800 words and send it off to the Straight. I am on target and even though I’m not that happy with the story the deadlines are met.

10:30PM The roundtables for Margot at the Wedding are with Jennifer Jason Leigh and director Noah Baumbach. I make the mistake of asking Noah if this film is as biographical as his first, The Squid and the Whale, which told the story of married academics with no parenting skills. His parents were married academics who divorced. He tells me that his characters are always composites. Make a note to find out if he has relatives who had a disastrous wedding ceremony.

12:30PM The interview with Clement Virgo starts out badly when I tell him that I hated all his previous movies. The good news that I really, really liked Poor Boy’s Game is a victim of honesty and appears to go unheard.

– 1:45PM –Walk down Bloor Street to Roots to talk to Mike Cahill, the King of California director. He’s a first time director who tells me that the part of Douglas’s daughter came down to Evan Rachel Wood and Halifax-based actress Ellen Page, who has buzz here because of the Vancouver-shot film Juno. Make a note to tell Page when I meet with her on Wednesday for The Tracey Fragments.

3:45PM Time to talk to Francois Girard about Silk. The interview goes well but the questions feel a little soft. Am I just tired out or do I have a soft spot for any Canadian who can get a film the size of Silk produced? I’m too tired to figure it out.

5:00PM One last thing to do: watch the subtitled Spanish thriller El Rey de la montaña (King of the Hill.) It starts out slowly, with a man having sex in a washroom with a woman he’s never met. Not surprisingly, she steals his wallet and disappears. Hours later, they are both being chased by snipers and you are right into the movie.

Wednesday, Sept 12, 10AM Back to back interviews with The Tracey Fragments’ director Bruce McDonald and star Ellen Page. McDonald has made an almost experimental multi-camera film about a girl who may or may not have lost track of her younger brother. I tell Page about how close she came to winning a part in King of California but she is unimpressed and says that it only means something if you get the part. She has heard some of the buzz about Juno but says she is comfortably settled in her hometown of Halifax and won’t be moving to Los Angeles. Good for her!

11:20AM I tell Summit Circle’s Bernard Emond that I was surprised to see that the bad guys are rich Frenchmen and he says that things have changed in Québec and that the wealthy French are considered by the Québécois to be no better or worse than the wealthy English who preceded them.

12PM Meet up with Allan Moyle, the ex-Québecer who went on to make Pump Up the Volume and Empire Records in the U.S. before returning to Canada for New Waterford Girl and now Weirdsville. He tells me that although he has houses in Europe and Los Angeles he is a patriotic Canadian. I find it interesting that so often expats and emigrants are usually more patriotic to the country of their birth than the citizens they left behind.

1PM – The last interview of the festival is with El Rey de la montaña’s Gonzalo López-Gallego. His film has just been picked up for international release and he’s thrilled. The fact that there are few violent scenes in his thriller leads me to bring up the name Alfred Hitchcock. He’s even more thrilled.

5PM - Somewhere over the Prairies on the way to Vancouver - The whirlwind tour has been completed and I am ready to begin what will probably be a month or two of reflection. I know that within a day or two, I will be tired of the questions about the festival, particularly those from people who want to know if it was “a good festival” or a bad one. I don’t really know. I do know that one of the worst things about the festival is having to push through crowds who are waiting to see movie stars in order to get into hotels to interview the people who actually make the movies. (I have often wondered why it is that everyone wants to hear from actors, who are usually the people who know the least about any movie since they spend most of their time in their trailers. There is a “dumb blonde” joke about the “blonde who was so dumb that she tried to get to the top by sleeping with a screenwriter.” I like screenwriters. If there isn’t a good script, no one can save the film.) The other memory I will keep for a while is of Ryan Gosling making his way through a big crowd gathered in front of the Intercontinental Hotel. A few people call out “Ryan” thinking that he is another Canadian actor, Ryan Reynolds. This, despite the fact that when he was nominated last year for Half Nelson, Gosling became the first Canadian since Walter Pidgeon to win an Oscar nomination for best actor. Pidgeon was nominated for Madame Curie in 1944! A few minutes later, David Schwimmer, who has a film here called Run, Fat Boy, Run, walks out and pandemonium ensues. It reminds me again of my parallel universe theory. However, I now believe that one universe represents “culture” and the other represents “pop culture.” Some of the countries (and provinces, if you include Quebec) that are represented in Toronto have created their own pop culture icons and these people will live forever in the collective memories of their fellow citizens. It would seem though that only Americans have been able to create a cinematic imperialism that allows them to manufacture pop culture icons for the masses.